Showing posts with label Customer Service. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Customer Service. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hertz: Too Big to Care

Here’s the story.

In October last year, I rented a car from Hertz in Toulouse for a couple of weeks. I have done this several times over the past seven years, and it has always been smooth.

When the vehicle was returned to the airport, completely unscathed, full of diesel and with only a further 900 or so kms on its clock, all seemed well. The return was registered at 5.02pm, and the automatic invoice generated at 5.04pm.

The invoice, however, contained a charge for €221 for “24/24 Assistance”; this is odd, as my profile (and I am a Gold Five-Star Member”) clearly indicates that I wish for no insurance or supplementary protections at all; none, whatsoever, and to date, these instructions have been followed.

Now, however, the game was on.

First, I assumed that a quick phone call to the Gold Line would suffice; silly me. After being transferred four times, with each concomitant wait, I was advised that it was a “French Matter”, and that my query would be forwarded to them. This was followed by a blizzard of helpful emails, many of which sought my impression of their service to be offered through the completion of an “on-line survey”.

To no avail.

I disputed the amount through American Express, and they took the offending payment off my bill. And we waited.

I was then advised by Amex that Hertz had advised that the charge was for “cleaning”, and apparently I had put the wrong sort of fuel in the car, and they were replacing the charge and would I now cough up.

Well, the problems with this scenario are three-fold:
  1. Had I put ordinary fuel into a diesel car, I would not have made it back to the airport
  2. They would have been hard pressed to make this determination within the two-minute window between returning the car and dispatching the bill, and
  3. I had a receipt proving that diesel had been poured (lavishly) into their vehicle.
Not even close.

I submitted another hold on the Amex account and set off to round two. This has culminated in a letter from the Hertz collections folks in the UK (“How did the UK get into it”, I hear you ask) who are actually, it turns out, in the Republic of Ireland.

This missive tells me in no uncertain terms that:
  1. This is all my fault
  2. I should pay immediately or face the wrath of collection agencies
  3. I will be prevented from renting from Hertz in the future
  4. My immediate attention to this matter is “required”

Well, faced with this wall, I again phoned. Not that the phone number they gave me was any good; they advised me to call a number in the UK using the international prefix “00”; this is, in fact, the prefix used by people in the UK (and presumably the Irish Republic) to call out. North Americans calling to the UK use a prefix “011”; a minor point, but if one writes snotty and heavy handed letters demanding “immediate attention”, the least they would do is get their own phone number right.

And so to chatting with the lovely Rachel. I don’t know about you, but those poor folks who work for collection agencies, airline lost-luggage departments or those whose job it is to rebook passengers stranded in the eye of a storm always seem to be medicated.

We have a conversation; I reiterate the issues and my most reasonable position; she sympathizes and says that I must have put the wrong sort of fuel in the car; I explain the different size nozzles that are attached to fuel pumps to prevent this sort of accident; she sympathizes and once again suggests that the wrong type of fuel has been used. I supply the image of the receipt for the correct type of fuel and she thinks that they may have to refer this matter to France.

I hang up, in a growly but jovial mood, and am immediately faced with cheery new emails from Hertz thanking me for contacting their customer service people and asking how I “felt about the experience”.

Hertz; please, just sort this out. I have been a loyal customer for years, but honestly, there is really little difference between your vehicles and those belonging to AVIS or Sixt.

Companies like Hertz have become too big. They are, as we all know, also Dollar and Thrifty, and big enough to feature such powerful role models as O. J. Simpson as their barkers. They have, however, lost touch with indivuduals during this growth. And they are not alone.

There are now only 3.5 airlines in the US (American (1,494 aircraft), Delta (1,280), United (1,264) and Southwest (683)), and as they have grown, so has their tolerance for irritated passengers. If one assumes that 1/2% of each airlines’ passengers are grumpy and “never want to travel with them again”, it is a large number, but these gruntleless passengers have only two alternatives. And each carrier will receive as many passengers who have lost their gruntle with a competitor as they lose.

So why bother to calm the waters? Much more economical to let them squeal and run to the competitors; a sound business decision, and an attitude that we see more and more often in the surviving corporate behemoths that dominate the serevice sector.

The triumph of capitalism in the service industry seems to be the attainment of the pinnacle from which one can simply be Too Big to Care.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why airlines dislike (most) of their clients.

Mark my words, airlines and their clients are rarely in the same boat.

The aviation industry has always been peculiar, and it is, indeed, a very difficult one to regularly make a profit. It is said that the cumulative financial results of the world’s international airlines from the end of the Second World War is a nett loss. Currently this may be changing as the US carriers finally make money, and serious piles of the stuff, but if history is any guide to the future this will change.

Change happens for many reasons, but today’s attitudes of airlines and their staff really takes the cake. Forge the sycophantic “Thanks for your business, we know you have a choice” message one hears upon landing, they know that in general, there is no choice. Depending on where you live, there is a single dominant carrier with pricing of a level of predation that would make a bald-eagle blush.

Most city pairs can be flown by one of the three major carriers; the determinant factor is, however, the number of flights available. Yes, one can travel from Minneapolis to New York with Delta, American or United, but only Delta offers a non-stop service, and prices it accordingly. The others will offer various levels of discount depending on the day of the week, how individual flights are selling at any given moment and a variety of other factors that feed the pricing algorithms that they all operate. 

This is, of course, fair enough, but not inclined to make the public believe that the airlines care about them one iota; and on non competitive routes (Winnipeg/Minneapolis), fares are simply disgraceful, and cynical in the extreme.

And then they get you; having found a reasonable fare, now there is the fight over baggage, flyer points, boarding sequence, refreshments and so on. The airlines spin doctors like to tell us that this is all a wonderful utopia designed solely for our “choice”, but the sad truth is rather different.

Airlines seem to be the only business whose heavily advertised product is deliberately made so dreadful that we will pay anything not to have to use it as described.

Unless one is one of a carriers’ most favoured clients, and here we are looking at only the top 20th percentile, one can be expected to face a cynical barrier of auto-responses and disinterest in response to any and every irregularity. Dealing with impossible call centres in distant lands solves no problems; hiding behind veils of inaccessibility allowing such gems as “The computer says no” to become the stock answer, and the pretence of the fusion of Alliances to help travellers mask a rapidly growing corporate contempt for their customers.

Airlines are behaving like governments; disinterested and too big to fail.

But why? I believe that they are simply too big. Senior executives, and even most middle managers, have never bought a plane ticket in their lives, and have absolutely no idea what the customer interface with an airline is all about. They have “Interline Desks” and travel free; other airline staff help them because they all know and participate in the same game.

I don’t begrudge them the pass benefits at all, but I do wonder how it is that an entire industry has evolved that is run by people with absolutely no practical knowledge of the customer/industry relationship. Senior folks in the grocery industry have often purchased milk themselves, or go to a Home Hardware store; they know what expectations of service are. Airline executives have simply no idea whatsoever.

They have no concept of the lunacy of the ticket restrictions when trying to piece together a complex vacation, or the difficulty in corralling three friends or family together to plan a trip. And when they do, suddenly they offer a “lock in the fare” option for (only) another $75! They simply don’t understand the vast range of motivations for purchasing their product.

And herein lies the glimmer of hope. Pride, as we know, goes before a fall; sadly, falls don’t always follow pride, but we can’t have everything.

Airline profits are slim on a percentage basis, and one that returns 3 - 4% is considered quite spectacular. This implies, of course, that 97% of their income is spent operating the business, and this leaves a dangerous group of passengers who are basically ignored. For many, travel is completely discretionary, and the choice of airlines is too. For those living at gateways, those with choice, market share of the local dominants is being slowly eroded by the newcomers. Witness the extraordinary vitriol being spouted by the normally diplomatic CEOs of Delta and United over the growth of the Middle Easter Three: Emirates, Qatar and Etihad.

They know that they are losing, and spitting blood over “subsidies” is a poor substitute for raising their service to a point that people will actually want to purchase their tickets.

And while we are on the subject of subsidies, US Government requirements for thousands of employees, contractors and others to travel on a US carrier, and pay vast fares for the privilege generate billions of dollars of revenue for the airlines in a hidden subsidy.

The contract for the US Mail is another major source of subsidy; original awarded to Pan Am to allow it to operate the first long-haul routes to South America and Africa, this tool has long been a well-used part of the government’s arsenal of support.

It is time that airlines realised that their passengers doubled as human beings, and would react positively to good service off the plane. Air Canada’s service on board is exemplary, but it does not mirror the off-line support offered by their baggage folks, airport staff, sales staff and most certainly the reservation desks. If carriers are to secure their now-found financial stability, ensuring clients’ loyalty by delivering an attractive service from beginning to end rather than by forcing loyalty through geography and nicely designed web tools would be a good move.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Irregular Operations: UA 972 / September 17

We have all been on flights where things go wrong; in fact, given the complexity of aircraft and their scheduling issues and the millions of passengers that travel each day, it is a wonder that things go wrong on a more regular basis.

But last night they did, and boy did the Air Traveller Gods send their thunderbolts down upon us.

I was flying on a United Airlines run from Chicago to Brussels with an onward connection to Toulouse; I was flying in First Class on an Aeroplan reward ticket. I had one meeting in Toulouse, and was then booked to fly to London on the 18th at 0850 on a separate British Airways ticket
Two hours after departing Chicago, a child was taken ill on the plane, and we diverted to Bangor, Maine to get the poor little tyke to hospital; this was unscheduled, but happens from time to time. We then departed from Bangor to fly the remaining six hours to the Belgian capital, and all was well. I fell asleep and dreamed of constructing tourist accommodation units in Georgia, a project that seemed to take on the most peculiar for as dream-projects are apt to do.

However, waking up some hours later I saw that the flight map had become corrupted or we were heading back to Chicago, which we were. A fault with the rudder, sufficiently serious to prevent a trans-oceanic flight, but not serious enough to prevent us turning around, was blamed, and that was that until we landed at O’Hare airport exactly twelve hours after we had departed.

And this is where it all started to tumble.

United Customer Service was absolutely and utterly dreadful; they sent a team of unqualified people to handle the rerouting requirements of 280 feisty and not unanimously jolly passengers. I was fortunate and reached the front of the line immediately and was presented with new boarding passes and curiously, a hotel voucher for a cheap hotel that lies $50 by taxi away from the airport.
I told the service agent that because of the delay, I no longer needed to travel to Toulouse, and could they simply put me on one of their three non-stops to London that day.

They could not because:
  •   I had a ticket to Toulouse and not London
  •    It was “free”
  •    It was Air Canada and they couldn't touch it
  •    The agent hadn't done any ticketing for over a year
  •    She was actually a gate agent in charge of an 0630 departure, and would be “written up” if her   dawdling in the customer service centre caused her to delay that flight.

I reminded them that:

  •  Although I had a ticket to Toulouse, they had failed to deliver me there and some give and      take would be appropriate.
  •    It would cost them less to only send me to London
  •  The ticket was not “free”; it was paid for in a currency to which they subscribe, and earned    by doing a substantial amount of business with their “partners”
  •    Air Canada and they were all part of a happy family called Star Alliance and she could, by a  magical process called “fimming” reissue these coupons
  •    Not much had changed in the world of ticketing in the past year, and if she had to get a flight     out at 0630, why was she behind this counter at all?

She then left, giving the file to a delightful but terribly soft spoken agent, and as the volume audibly increased as the remaining passengers were beginning to get a bit peaky.
  • She now pointed out that:
  •  There was no First Class space, and
  •  Even if there was, I could not get it because award tickets had to be booked in a particular “bucket” of seats of which there were none.
  •  Would $7 worth of meal vouchers suffice, and she could get a closer hotel.
  •   And finally, how did I know what a FIM was?

I retorted that:
  • I could see on my handy United Airlines App that there was a seat in First Class at 1825 if she looked closely and that
  • I fully realised that award tickets were booked in a particular “bucket”, but so was everybody else’s, and these were not available either. So I would be most agreeable if she would simply rebook me in First and I would be on my way.
  • $7 would hardly quench my thirst, but if that was it, I would be prepared to overlook this slight.
  • and finally, FIMs are my trump card.
Her defence was now tumbling and she pointed out that
  •  It would be impossible to reroute my bags which were already tagged to London

I pointed out that
  • A month or so previously my bags had been tagged to London, but that they went to Hong Kong instead, so I really didn't have much faith in their systems anyhow; and in any case, I would go downstairs once that issued my new boarding pass and talk to the baggage folks myself.
  • I was still holding the seat to London that I had slyly booked as a precaution.

She now reissued my ticket, in First Class to London as requested, I went downstairs and arranged with a delightful baggage agent for mine to be “intercepted” and “redirected” to London. I am not holding my breath, but will report its whereabouts tomorrow.

However, I spent over half an hour at the counter, and getting what I had first requested after thirty wasted minutes of some corporate defence strategy. I have no idea how the remaining passengers got on, but I was told that the line-up was still in place five hours later.

Why oh why, United Airlines, do you send out such incompetent folks; they are all delightful, but only one that I could see, a gentleman reissuing tickets and dispatching passengers with a smile and click of his keyboard onto other carriers with no issue.

We are entitled to decent treatment from competent staff; we are not, after spending twelve hours encapsulated in a faulty Boeing 777 ready to be nickel and dimed to death on straight forward reroutes. Reissuing agents need to know the tools that that they have, and your corporate structure should not rely on the savings made by incorrectly applying guidelines (not rules) to already deeply inconvenienced passengers. 

What possible savings do you make sending passengers to a $66 room in Glenvale (wherever that is) by spending $100 on taxis?

Mechanical issues are inevitable; how you rise to the occasion is an entirely different matter, and on the morning of September 17th, you failed dismally.